Student janitor Michael Gaulden drags his mop, pail and broom into the boys' bathroom at San Diego High School. The floor and walls are spotted with feces, maybe deliberately, he thinks. The floor has small puddles of urine. His job is to clean it all up.
As he works, a crowd of boys watches him and cracks jokes. "Feces boy," they call him, but that's actually not the word they use. With every insult, they hoot and guffaw and slap hands at their cleverness. They take cellphone photos of him scrubbing.
He's black and so are they. So what? Bullies don't care about victims' color, only that they're vulnerable.
The janitor is only a kid, but he's doing work most men would turn away from. However, he has no choice. If he does not, his mother and sister will suffer even more.
He keeps his head down and scrubs. Does he block out the abuse and dream of a better tomorrow? No. That's for kids from Del Mar. Down where he lives, most fantasies come from doing dope.
He has been placed in the job by a San Diego Workforce Partnership youth program. He works it as diligently as a CEO, minus the golf, because it might be a way to help him escape the life he's been trapped in.
It does. He catches a break and is able to surf that high tide Shakespeare tells us about, and goes on to win a college scholarship, and with the help of every part-time job he could hustle, he walked away with an honest-to-goodness degree from UCLA.
By the calendar, that incident in the bathroom happened seven years ago. But in the memory of Michael Gaulden, it happened yesterday, because it left an indelible imprint.
Today, Michael wears a figurative white collar in his job as career development coordinator at Monarch School, the K-12 inner-city academy for kids whom the education system forgot or can't find. He's a happy-faced, buff and confident guy in trendy clothes who works to keep today's children from having to mop a bathroom.
I don't personally care for the word ghetto. It just leaves a metallic taste on my tongue. However, the area just south of downtown San Diego is a ghetto - not a racial one, but a ghetto of despair. The "drive-bys" that happen here are not gang shootings, but the indifference of society that speeds by on Interstate 5 without seeing the unsmiling people just beyond the off-ramp.
There was no shortcut for Michael. He only briefly knew a real home until he leased a one-bedroom apartment of his own in Spring Valley last year.
He spent his years from 7 to 17 living in a car; overnight stops at cheap motels, often in a room with several strangers; in rescue shelters until being "timed out"; in juvenile hall for a short period; in a randomly pitched tent; and worst, on the streets - literally the cold, unforgiving concrete of some of the most dangerous, grimiest sidewalks of San Diego.
Michael shared the ratty cushions of beat-up cars with a mother who was frequently ill, sometimes desperately, and a sister one year older who suffered seizures.
His father? Michael's father is in prison serving a very long stretch for murder. Michael has not seen him since he was 12. Michael's grandfather was murdered in prison, and his father before him.
Considering the family history, if this story were about Michael following in those footsteps and being in prison himself, we both would say, "I'm not surprised."
But he didn't. Michael is not in prison. So how in the world did that happen?
Persistent sickness will drag anyone down, but when you're homeless, disease tends to dig in and take root. Michael's mother managed to keep her family in an apartment until he was 7, then lost her job because of illness. From that point, "address unknown" was where the small family lived.
It was a quiet day on the trolley, and 16-year-old Michael should have been relaxed. But you can't, not where he lives. Danger might be hiding in the quiet. Ever watchful, he notices five young men "eyeballing" him. All are strangers. He averts his eyes to signal he wishes no trouble.
He should have known better than to rely on wishes with those guys.
Michael says, "They walk up to me, and it's like, ‘Who are you? Where you from?' I'm, like, ‘Michael, and I don't gang-bang at all.'
"Next thing, one guy hits me on one side of the head. Another guy hits me on the other side. They start stomping me out. I try to cover up, and they pull my hands apart to hit me in the face."
With a concussion and a face covered in blood, the police take him off the trolley. Before they can sort things out, the five hoodlums disappear. One of the cops concludes, "Oh, it's gang-related."
Why did they jump you?
"No reason," he says. "They're angry. They're poor. They have to lash out, and I was the victim that day. That wasn't the first time something like that happened, but that time made me understand, ‘I won't survive this too much longer if I stay here.'"
Were you wearing blue or red (gang colors) or something?
"No. I was careful not to. You stick to dull colors when you're in the inner city, but as I found out, it doesn't matter what you wear. It doesn't matter if you're not a gang-banger. It doesn't matter, any of that. If they want to attack you, they're going to attack you."
You were 16. Weren't you thinking, "I'm going to get a gun and my homies and come back here and waste those punks?"
"I never thought like that. I didn't even have money to get a gun. All my cousins were in gangs, and doing stuff like shooting people. But I wasn't, because that comes with death. That comes with jail. I've seen it my whole life. Most of my family members are drug addicts, drug dealers or criminals. That wasn't the way for me. But choosing to be different leaves you susceptible to being alone in the inner city."
When Michael's mother was well enough to work - any work she could get - they might scrape together $300 to $500 for an old car, mainly to sleep in. It was a whole lot better than the street.
"Living that way, it was terrible. I hated it. I keep the mental picture with me everywhere I go, because I hated it. I'll never forget. I'll never let myself forget having police bother you, having people look at you like you were less than an animal."
When their mother was frequently in the hospital, Michael and his sister were left to fend for themselves, starting at age 11 or 12. They turned to begging, or to use the dressed-up word - panhandling.
"I was great at it. I had enough practice. It's not as easy as you would think. People just don't hand out money, but when you're a kid, and they can look into your eyes and look at your clothes and see the desolation, they're bound to give you a dollar every now and then. We lived on that.
"You survive. That's when you meet people. You got homies, or you couch surf. You try to do whatever you got to do. Sometimes you tag along with groups of people; one of them's getting a motel that night, and you just crash along with them. You eat at the charity places.
"We just had to do what we had to do until mom got out of the hospital, and then we went back in the car."
The obvious question is why he didn't turn to Child Protective Services, or why CPS didn't seek him and his sister out. He makes it clear that in the black underclass, CPS was something to be avoided, almost feared.
"It's the system. I've seen many kids get lost in it. All my cousins were in foster care. The system, it's flawed. It's looked on negatively in the inner city. They don't want CPS to come and take kids, because they never seem to get back to their parents. It breaks apart families."
Were you ever in foster care?
Michael says that on the rare occasions he would be in a nice neighborhood, he would feel like a ghost, just roaming around, an invisible being until he got in someone's way or tried to touch something.
"It was terrible. There's a shelter called YWCA El Cortez, and the historic hotel called El Cortez is nearby. From my window in the shelter, me and my sister, we could see the lights from that other El Cortez. I was like, ‘One day we'll be on the other side.'"
Nights in San Diego are mild. That's the experience when you're in a heated house and your car's windshield doesn't frost overnight. But when you're homeless, the cold laughs at rag-tag coats, and the wind makes you cower in a doorway.
Let's briefly visit Michael in his Ford-junker bedroom. He has to watch his mother in pain with no meds, trying to find comfort in the back seat of the old car. His sister is complaining that he ate the last of the Doritos. He's trying to stay warm with his legs contorted under the steering wheel and watching a rat forage under a streetlight.
In his life, laughter has no humor, the future tells lies, and something called hope is turning tricks in a hourly rate motel down the street. A prayer is not for world peace, but that there will be enough for seconds at the shelter soup line.
Then, 16-year-old Michael went to a different sort of "other side." He stood lookout while his cousins broke into a house. The teen burglars ran afoul of a Neighborhood Watch sentinel and were grabbed by police. He was given probation as a first offender.
Being a teenager can be synonymous with a lot of boiling, bubbling emotions, anger being a geyser. For a homeless kid, it's Old Faithful.
Tell us about anger, Michael.
"I was mad at everyone for a while. I mean, you're a teenager. However, people who have a volatile personality, they can go off the tracks. I've seen it. I've seen friends with those temper problems turn into killers, shooting at kids. I've witnessed a lot of things in my time. I was mad because I was like, ‘This is just so unfair. I didn't do anything wrong to be in this situation.'
"Counselors are supposed to talk to you, and they want you to understand. I had a counselor, and she was like, ‘Do you trust me?' I'm like, ‘No, I don't trust you.' They want you to get them to trust you, except when you get up to stretch or something, they jump out of their skin and grab their purse.
"Am I a criminal?"
Coming tomorrow: A Way Out and Up
ABLE STEWARD LEADING YOUTH OUT OF THE DARK
Monday: Michael Gaulden grew up living in junker cars. That was when he had a roof at all.
We started this story remembering when Michael, a homeless teenager, suffered ridicule and bullying by working as a student janitor at San Diego High School. But that was a good thing - the job, I mean.
The money he earned enabled him to help put his mother and older sister, both in bad health, in public housing, where they still reside. It was the first honest-to-goodness home they could call their own in years.
Michael used scholarship money plus wages from his part-time work to graduate from UCLA last year. Now 23, he works as a career counselor at San Diego's Monarch School, which focuses on students who are homeless, at risk of becoming so or affected by homelessness in some other way.
Michael's job at Monarch is a daily revisit to his past. He especially tries to reach teenagers who remind him of what he once saw in the mirror and the youth he was a few years ago - tired, scared, poor and struggling to find hope and a vision.
He works with kids to whom the scary world "out there" is as forbidding as a picnic in Jurassic Park. In addition to providing students with how-to guidance in the form of job fairs, interviews, résumés and skills development, he is the living embodiment of someone who has done what they always doubted they would ever be able to do.
I tell Michael that I've heard people question why the impoverished and homeless often appear to be obese.
"In general, you mostly eat things that are given to you by other people. When you have a few dollars, you try to get something fast and high-calorie. It's unhealthy, but just living that life, you're not going to be healthy," he says.
"You can't really store food when you're homeless. All you have is canned food, or fast food, or donated food. And you've got to eat it all because otherwise it'll get stolen or spoil. In fact, you preserve it as fat in your body."
I describe a woman I've met. She's 19 or so and a college student. She seems friendly and smart, but she's also unmarried with one child and pregnant with another.
Those two things just don't seem to fit: She's ambitious for her future but is making that future hugely more difficult.
Michael says in communities filled with lack - lack of hope, lack of resources, lack of love - you want your relationships to fill all those lacks.
He says one of the ways young women find emotional security is with a guy who gives them a sense of being loved and the feeling of being "somebody." And surprise! They end up having sex. The result is babies. They don't understand how it will change their lives. A few years down the road, they understand - "Maybe I should have waited."
Sex education is all around them, Michael.
He gives a sort of helpless shrug. "If sex education comes from the home, it's more likely to take because it then becomes a part of family values. But on the streets, some guys refuse to use condoms. Anyway, they cost money, and that's no small thing."
He says the question that matters is: What is missing in your life to put you in that position?
"A lot of these young women are abandoned, physically or emotionally. Human beings all need to feel love from somebody. When you have that child, the child's going to love you no matter what. If you don't get it anywhere else, at least you can get it from your child.
"In my experience in the inner city, students who are dealing with extreme poverty and extreme circumstances just don't know. When all your friends are pregnant, when your mother probably had you at a young age and her mother had her at a young age, it's this perpetuating cycle."
Michael looks back on his own time in the homeless trap, and the difficulty of trying to pry those steel jaws apart. Many kids will end up exhausted and surrender to the trap.
Michael says, "It all means well when you say, ‘I want to break the cycle.' But the actuality of it and the practicality of it, it just seems so damn impossible when you're trying.
"There were times where I got tired of being so hopeless and being so impoverished. Even as a teenager, I couldn't just sit and listen to my mother starve in the car. I'm a man, I told myself. You've got to do what you've got to do.
"I wasn't going to sell drugs, so what could I do? At that time, all I could do was hustle and take things, then try to convince older people to pawn them.
"You get marginalized at school. You're getting beat up in the hood. You're getting rejected when you try to go leave the hood. I really had nowhere to turn."
Michael's negativity is not for himself, but for those left behind.
We can ask why there are not more Michael Gauldens who can climb out of poverty.
That's a fair question, but then we should also ask: Why are there so many who have to try?
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]